Saturday, December 26, 2015

And so this is Christmas.....

I'm a bit of a dog with a bone about this; or maybe I should say a dog with a tick he can't get at.  But I have this collection of writings connected to the Nativity stories, and it makes for interesting rump scholarship to use it as a source.

Not that there are that many sources for information about Christmas.  The two histories I know of, by Stephen Nissenbaum and Penne Restad, both indicate the origins of Christmas celebrations, even of gift giving (which we'll get to) are murky, at best.  This anthology I mentioned starts with the Hebrew scripture prophecies picked up by Christians as precursors to the story of the Christ (a matter of new interpretations which we can discuss another day), and continues through the two nativity stories into the apocryphal ones (from the Infancy Gospel of James and the Arabic Gospel) into all the earliest church writings about the Incarnation.  It ends in the 4th century, and then jumps to the Middle Ages, with the earliest entry being by Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived in the 12th century.

Which means that, for 700 years, nothing much happened.  Nothing worth noting today, anyway; and this is an anthology that picks up just about every obscure reference to Christmas (including the scene on the ramparts of the castle of Denmark from Act I of "Hamlet") that can be found.  Which underlines my first point:  just because it is important to us, today,doesn't mean it was always like this.

As a child I remember thinking how unimaginable a world without Christmas would be.  I didn't mean the religious aspects so much as the celebratory aspects:  gifts and joy and singing and happiness and all the stuff Scrooge's nephew praised about the season.  But of course, that sense of the season is a recent one, not a perennial one.  It didn't start in Bethlehem on that night long ago, and it hasn't been continuous since.  Indeed, the celebration of Christmas as we know it at all is shorter than that 700 year gap; is not even half of that span of time.  We have to first shed the notion that history began with our awareness, and anything we aren't aware of couldn't have happened except as we would expect it to.  So the idea that Christmas sucked up "Saturnalia" or, even more vaguely the "winter solstice" (which I doubt anyone actually observed as we think they did) is wrong, to begin with.

This book does come down on the side of "Sol Invictus" (actually Natali Invictus) as the date for the Christ mass celebration because it was an important Roman holiday; it says so in passing (the anthology is not a work of scholarship).  To this I would say "Yes, but...." and note two things:  one, the Christ Mass was celebrated in Rome sometime before 354 C.E., which places it after the death of Constantine (and so Rome was officially Christian by then), and: "But even should a deliberate and legitimate "baptism" of a pagan feast be seen here no more than the transference of the date need be supposed."  Such things were quite common throughout Christian history; it wasn't until the Puritans that anyone complained so strongly about it, and their arguments really weren't all that sound.  Here, again, the right view of history is needed.

The church in Rome got along fine without the observance of the birth of Christ in a special mass for several centuries.  The first observance of such a mass was in Alexandria (200 C.E.), which is logical because the Egyptians observed the birthdays of their Pharaohs, who were regarded as gods.  Date of birth would be of obvious significance, and it's no surprise the church in Egypt would decide a special celebration of the Birth of the Christ was in order.  But already we're off track if we think that "special celebration" involved anything like the celebration we have today.  This was a celebration by the church, and that meant a special Mass.  Easter was still the dominant day on the Church calendar (as it remains in the Eastern church); the mass for the Nativity was just an addition to the liturgical calendar.

And it remained such for centuries.  It is only in the medieval church that we begin to get celebrations like the Feast of Fools in December, and more elaborate celebrations among the kings as the period moves on.  This anthology includes the tale of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone on Christmas, from Malory's telling of the tale.  Sadly, it doesn't include the beheading game that the Green Knight plays in Arthur's hall during the Christmas feast, another indication of how Christmas was observed:  not with gifts and Santa Claus, but with feasts and parties (feasts and games form a central part of the narrative at the Green Knight's hall the next Christmas).  The noblesse oblige of the rulers included some recognition of the existence of the serfs; but they weren't invited into the great hall to eat the boar's head with the gentry.

The literature of Christmas slowly grows from strictly religious terms (tropes for the Mass; sermons and hymns we still associate with Christmas), and by the Renaissance we find Mummer's plays by Ben Johnson, and poems from Donne, Herbert, Milton, and Dryden (as well as subversive stuff at the time, like the Catholic Southwells' "The Burning Babe").  This is the stuff the Puritans in America were railing against (and in England, for a time); this is the real separation of the church service (the "Christ Mass") from the secular observance (Johnson's play is for a presentation in the Court of James, and it has barely a shepherd or wise man in it.  The characters in the excerpt include Father Christmas, Venus, and Cupid.  No wonder the Puritans were appalled.)

And then there's the matter of gift giving.  So far as I know, Coleridge recounts the story of the German tannenbaum which made it so popular in America and then Europe in the 19th century, and he includes the idea of parents giving gifts to children.  Clement Clarke Moore, of course, made that even more popular in America later that same century.  This is in line with the Industrial Revolution creating a new middle class with money to spend and things to spend it on (thanks to the factories), and so gift giving begins. (Christmas wasn't an official holiday in America until 1870; in 1832 a visitor to America notes how no one is celebrating that day.)  That's really another topic entirely, but as I've mentioned before. the idea that it is connected to the Roman Saturnalia, which ended in Rome 75 years before the first Christ Mass was observed there, is ridiculous.  It also assumes exchanging presents was a custom from the 4th century on.  As I said, we engage in learning from history at our peril, unless we are willing to accept that the world as we know it isn't the world as it has always been; nor is it even the perfection of the world towards which all history has been moving.

Christmas as a religious observance moved away from Christmas as a societal celebration as society itself moved away from the dominance of the church over secular affairs that proceeded from the Renaissance and, more importantly, the Reformation.  What we think of as Christmas related items today have virtually nothing to do with the religious observance of the Nativity story, aside from the ubiquitous manger scenes.  Trees, lights, decorations, ornaments, parties:  none of that really has anything intrinsic to do with Christianity.  Indeed, if we were more concerned with the religious observance of Christmas, more churches would be open on Christmas Day every year, and especially when Christmas comes on a Sunday.

Christmas is extremely important to us today, especially as an economic event (the liturgy of our true secular god).  We imagine it must have been ever thus, and with a little knowledge some of us retroject a history on 2000 years which never occurred and couldn't have happened.  Then again, most of us think Hollywood westerns both taught us U.S. history and gave us an accurate picture of what everything west of the Mississippi looks like.  But the Christmas we know is a very recent invention:  partly the child of Dickens and Moore, but just as much the child of the Industrial Revolution and northern European cultures.  It is also almost entirely a reflection of our culture:  it is a mirror of our times.  Things don't really change all that much or all that fast, and technology certainly doesn't really augur a fundamental shift in human nature or even human relationships.  The traditions we cling to this time of year, apart from a few hymns and carols, aren't really all that old.  But we tell ourselves they are because we need the continuity.

And that, really, is a subject I would preach on:  our need for continuity, for a connection with something other than ourselves that can make us feel truly human.  Religion is blamed for doing that when that need expresses itself in violence and mayhem.  Religion can do that, because nothing can finally control humans except their own individual will.  But religion can also be that source of connection and continuity.  In Christianity, as I hope to show soon, that connection and continuity is part of the gospel (i.e., core) message of the Church.  It is also a part (and this is the key to my thinking) of the paradox of Christianity, a paradox embodied in the child who was God incarnate, creator in the created, king in the feed trough of animals at birth.  That paradox is not only at the heart of the Christian story, paradox itself (or, if you prefer the language of so many new atheists on-line, 'contradiction') is the heart of the gospel message.

But God willing and the Holy Spirit acting, we'll come back to that.  Maybe.  If I keep thinking about it.

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